Sontag, Susan

Assigned: Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation” (1722-30). Also read the editors’ introduction (1717-21).

“Against Interpretation” (1964)

Section 1

1. On 1722-23 (“The earliest experience of art…”), how, according to Susan Sontag, does imitative or “mimetic” theory first force art to “justify itself” (1722)? In what sense does art, with the advent of Plato’s theorizing in The Republic, become “problematic, in need of defense” (1722)? How does the defense thus called into being result in the birth of the troublesome opposition “form/content”?

Section 2

2. On 1723 (“None of us can ever retrieve…”), according to Sontag, what experience of art becomes impossible once mimetic theory takes over? What attitude towards this development does Sontag herself take? What is the “project of interpretation,” and why is it counterproductive to the true appreciation of art?

Section 3

3. On 1723-25 (“Of course, I don’t mean interpretation…”), how does Sontag define the term “interpretation”? In what sense does interpretation turn out to be essentially a “translation” (1723) of a given work from one set of elements, one language, to another? How did the later classical interpreters of Greek myth, for example, come to find such stories “unacceptable” (1724), and in need of translation for a contemporary readership? In what sense was such an operation vital to the preservation of ancient myths and texts? How, according to Sontag, is interpretation in our own day even more complex, destructive and radical than the kind of operations that late-classical interpreters performed on the delightful stories that housed the Greek myths?

Section 4

4. On 1725 (“Today is such a time…”), how does Sontag characterize the effects of the so-called “project of interpretation” during her own time? Why does she call it “the revenge of the intellect upon art” and even “the revenge of the intellect upon the world”?

Section 5

5. On 1725-26 (“In most modern instances…”), Sontag calls modern interpretation mainly a “philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone” (1725). How, according to her, does this insistence on conjuring complicated “meanings” for works of art affect literary artists and filmmakers or playwrights themselves? How, too, has supposed over-interpretation all but ruined texts by authors as great as Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett? Do you agree with this claim on Sontag’s part—namely, that a horde of interpreters can somehow damage a given work of art, or at least damage our perception of it? Why or why not?

Section 6

6. On 1726-27 (“It doesn’t matter whether artists…”), what argument does Sontag raise against film directors such as Elia Kazan, Alain Robbe-Grillet, or, potentially, Tennessee Williams and Ingmar Bergman, insofar as they court extremely complicated, multiple interpretations of their work? In Sontag’s view, how might such complicated interpretations detract from the work’s value, and indicate “a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work” (1727)?

Section 7

7. On 1727-29 (“Interpretation does not, of course…”), how, according to Sontag, has modern art tried to protect itself from inundation by interpreters? What criticism does she make, however, particularly of American fiction writers and playwrights? In Sontag’s view, why is cinema such a promising art form with regard to combating the modern tendency to interpret works of art to death and mine them for “content”? What examples does she offer in support of her claim favoring film’s power to resist over-interpretation?

Section 8

8. On 1729-30 (“What kind of criticism…”), Sontag gives us a sense of what kinds of criticism she thinks would be a healthy departure from criticism grounded in the teasing-out of content. What critical practices, then, does she illustrate in this section, and how does she explain their superiority to content-based analysis?

Section 9

9. On 1730 (“Transparence is the highest…”), Sontag declares “Transparence” to be “the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today.” What does she apparently mean by this term? Moreover, in former times, why was content-based criticism actually a radical and even revolutionary gesture, given the intellectual temperament and social conditions of those times? How does Sontag characterize her own time, the 1960s? What does she believe is needed in that era? Why, in her view, is it a period in which people do not need any kind of criticism that makes art less immediate, dramatic and sensual an experience? Finally, how does Sontag sum up that most Arnoldian of concerns, “The function of criticism” (see Leitch 684-703)?

Section 10

10. On 1730 (“In place of a hermeneutics…”), Sontag says that we need to jettison “hermeneutics” (systems of interpretation) and instead develop “an erotics of art.” How do you interpret—irony intended—that phrase? Why does Sontag equate the experience of art to erotic experience? How does it fit in with the arguments she has been making throughout her essay?

11. General question: In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag refers several times (in one way or another) to the notion that there is a “work in itself,” an object of some sort that we can experience simply and directly—or that we could experience like that if the critics would kindly get out of the way and leave the work of art, and us, alone. To what extent do you agree with that assumption? Explain your reasons for answering as you do.

12. General question: As a corollary to the question immediately above (regarding the supposed “work in itself”), Susan Sontag, in “Against Interpretation,” seems to believe that exclusively content-based criticism is not only wrong for the 1960s, but also that it is damaging to works of art. She doesn’t mean this literally, of course—even the worst critic isn’t an art-terrorist bent upon spraying acid on the “Mona Lisa” or taking a baseball bat to a priceless Greek statue—but in what sense is she apparently quite serious in this claim that bad criticism ruins works of art? What assumptions underlie such a claim, and to what extent do you agree with Sontag’s assertion?

13. General question: In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag suggests that film is among the most promising art forms with regard to its resistance to interpretation. She also seems to like the technology-oriented discussion that flourishes in film criticism, and refers directly to this kind of discussion in Section 7: Sontag writes that cinema “possesses a vocabulary of forms—the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera movements, cuttings, and composition of the frame that goes into the making of a film” (1729 top). Why does she favor this sort of critical topic? Do you agree that writing about “film tech” is very different in its effects on readers of the resultant criticism than the content-based discourse that Sontag dislikes? Why or why not?

14. General question: In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag offers a bold critique of criticism she doesn’t find healthy, and a prescription for improvement. This is all done in the name of a certain quality of experience in one’s engagements with literature and art. How do you think of your own experiences thus far in the presence of art, or as a reader of literary texts? Do you think of art mainly as a refuge from life’s difficulties; a means of reflecting on life; a way of finding things out about your own or other cultures; a handmaid to political or social reality, etc.? Have you ever achieved what you think is the ideal engagement with a work of art or literature? If so, can you describe that engagement and explain why it is ideal? If you can’t achieve your ideal engagement, what do you think is getting in the way?

15. General question: Some of Susan Sontag’s concluding rhetoric in “Against Interpretation” (Section 9 in particular) sounds rather like that of William Wordsworth in his 1800/02 “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” where he claims that “a multitude of causes, unknown to former times” (Leitch 570) have combined in his day to blunt English sensibilities to the healthier feelings that make life meaningful and coherent. Proponents of the Theater of Cruelty like Antonin Artaud (see The Theater and Its Double), along with literary modernists like T. S. Eliot (Leitch 881-98), have made similar claims in their own era, though they use a different vocabulary to make the case for Western civilization’s moral, intellectual or emotional incapacity. How much validity do you find in Sontag’s claim, which, like all such claims, posits an anterior “better time” that must now be compared with a degenerate and troubling modernity? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake